More land needed to support influx of Burundian refugees, U.N. says

Burundi refugees at the Mahama refugee camp, Rwanda. Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Thomas Conan

Refugee camps hosting more than 380,000 Burundians are running out of space. More land is needed to prepare for the total number of refugees to swell to 500,000 by the end of this year, U.N. Refugee Agency (UNCHR) officials said.

The number of people leaving Burundi is increasing after peace talks failed to settle a political crisis sparked by a coup attempt against president Pierre Nkurunziza in April 2015. As many as 600 people a day fled to Tanzania in January, according to UNHCR. Only one of the three refugee camps is taking in new people – Nduta already hosts more than its 100,000 person capacity.

Crowded camps in Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo make an already difficult humanitarian response worse. The $96.1 million provided to the Burundian refugee response in 2016 was about half of the total need. Funding shortfalls will likely continue into 2017.

“Without allocation of new land to extend capacity in existing camps or build new ones, these countries will struggle to provide sufficient shelter and life-saving services in the camp sites,” said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler, at a news briefing. “Camp facilities also need to be upgraded, including construction of more homes, schools, health centers and better drainage systems to lessen the risk of disease.”

Tanzania hosts the majority of Burundian refugees with more than 220,000 people registered. Despite hosting fewer people, camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda are also under stress. The Lusenda camp in DR Congo is where the majority of the 32,000 refugees in the country reside. Its population doubled in 2016, putting it on the brink of overcrowding.

It is a similar story in Rwanda. An increasing number of the 38,000 Burundian urban refugees are requesting to be settled in the Mahama camp. But it is already 3,000 people over capacity. People at the camp awaiting transfer to a family shelter must live under plastic sheeting in communal hangars. Uganda, on the other hand, is managing its refugees well, according to UNHCR. It takes a different approach to refugee resettlement that involves giving people land to build homes and farm.

Humanitarian groups have faced varying challenges since the surge of people fled Burundi after the failed coup. Experts warned that the political crisis could quickly spiral out of control, leading to fighting and more refugees. A group of political scientists wrote an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the U.S. to take proactive steps to prevent violence in Burundi. The concerns have yet to come true, but the underlying issues the fueled the crisis are not resolved.

A cholera outbreak in May 2015 killed at least 27 people as they waited to be settled in a camp. By November, aid groups warned that they could not keep up with the people leaving Burundi. A joint statement from groups on the ground pleaded for the international community to dedicate more money to the crisis. The funding needs were not met in 2016 and pressure will build if the rate of people leaving Burundi in January continues throughout the year.

“The challenges and gaps due to the crowded conditions in existing camps include access to basic social services, provision of child protection, tackling sexual and gender-based violence, insufficient classrooms, averting absenteeism, helping people with special needs,” said Spindler. “The land shortages and rising number of arrivals exacerbate these problems.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.